Rem Koolhaas: The Architecture of Information Trevor O'Keefe 5/6/2011
Throughout the history of architecture, materials have been addressed in a variety of ways that are relevant to the time in which the building is designed and constructed. In the beginning, buildings could only be built of materials that were in the immediate vicinity of their site. As time went on and technology improved, materials were able to be brought far and wide to meet certain aesthetic ideals. Today, as technology has improved further, the way in which we use materials must be readdressed as the way in which we live has undergone a radical shift in just the last few decades. The invention and subsequent domination of ‘digital’ has done more to change our lives in less time than anything before. And yet, architecture has been tentative to address this fact. Perhaps it has to do with the immaterial nature of ‘digital’. The digital world is one of nearly pure information moving back and forth between individuals. It is a different kind of revolution than that which Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe found salvation in. There is no steel or stone or wood on which to rely and learn everything about. What’s more is that this world is quick and ephemeral, the same which could not be said about buildings. One architect, however, has been addressing this issue. Rem Koolhaas has put forth a number of theories of design in the digital age, and tested these ideas in the buildings he has constructed. In 1998, Rem and his firm The Office for Metropolitan Architecture, secured a commission for the new student center at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The campus had prided itself on its forward thinking 60 years prior, and Koolhaas seemed interested in restoring this banner. His plan was an examination in density, cut through by the current arterial network of shortcuts on the site which he determined by hiring students to conduct studies. These shortcuts determined the main routes through what was to be considered one super-building spanning the entire campus, with bits of program woven throughout and across multiple levels.
This is a reexamination of the urban grid, recognizing that student life had evolved beyond the ideas of a traditional campus, and that cities too were evolving. Though never fully realized, or one could say even intended to be realized, this idea did allow him the opportunity to build the student center and explore ideas of the Information Age. Rem Koolhaas broke out to the architectural world with “a polemical investigation of Manhattan” in 1978 with “Delirious New York”. This book looked at the quickly changing urban landscape as Rem envisioned it through the case study of Manhattan. For the book, Koolhaas coined the term “Manhattanism” as a way to represent everyday life as it happened in a city. This is directly contrary to the sort of highly designed fashion life that was beginning to become available for sale in fashion magazines everywhere. Fresh on the heels of Modernism walking out the door, Rem envisioned the future as representative of “The fire of Manhattanism burning in the iceberg of Modernism.” He made an analogy to the human body, in which Modernism represented to cool, rational mind of an individual, while Manhattanism represented the spirit and heart. It was this future that Rem sought to bring to life 30 years later at IIT. First and foremost in his scheme Rem needed to respond to the existing condition, which was the iceberg of Van Der Rohe in which the campus existed. He did this by melding his programmatic ideas with the underlying rationale of Mies; the grid. The grid represented for Mies a system that could expand infinitely to meet the needs of any program and client. Rem in turn decided to expand Mies’ grid outward from the Commons building (to which his student center connected) except where it was inconvenient for the program. At these points the grid itself was shifted to accommodate differing needs. Information ultimately is the key to this project. On the one hand, the project itself is an informed response to Modernism. Rem respects the rationality of Modernism, and is in fact a proclaimed fan of Mies. However, it is clear in his work that he feels that Modernism has failed somewhere in responding to the real human condition. Representative of this condition is the work of graphic design firm 2X4, based in New York. 2X4 created for this project a series of graphic
representations of student life to adorn the building. These graphics were based on ideas created for early 20th century Olympic Games, which used similar graphics to guide people of all nationalities to their destination without needing to print a mass of languages. The graphics in Koolhaasâ€™ student union, on the other hand, served as a combination of decoration and purveyor of information. This micro-imagery could then be used for a variety of purposes beyond the original representation. By developing a system of gradients between the images, it became possible to use these individual symbols to create larger images like a pointillist painting. This was done to great effect at the West entrance, which contains a tall portrait of Mies in such pixels (see below-1). This idea was brought inside as well between the West foyer and the Pritzker Dining Club, where exists a glass wall with images of a handful of people who were important to IITâ€™s founding (see below-2). With a bit of abstraction, this idea was also originally intended to be extended into the Pritzker Club as classical wall ornamentation, a literal idea of information as decoration (see below-3).
-3 Another material Koolhaas used is a plastic-based grid used along the East-façade. This material was grabbed by Koolhaas and his team from manufacturers who sell it as a highly-chemical and impact resistant flooring at oil refineries and other industrial locations. The metaphor, I feel, is not quite lost on Koolhaas. This material can serve almost as an acknowledgement of the Modernism he is responding to. Industrial in nature, infinite in possibility, Koolhaas repurposes it as essentially signage by placing orange round pegs within the square holes to spell out the building’s name, “McCormick Tribune Campus Center”. All of this within a material selectively repurposed from odd origins.
One examination of contemporary culture that Koolhaas makes is the acceptance of fashion. Fashion is an idea contrary to the cool rationality of Modernism and can be identified much more with Manhattanism in that sense. Fashion represents Remâ€™s willingness to accept things as they are without some kind of overarching intent or raison dâ€™etre. This highlights the centuries old question of whether an architectâ€™s role is to describe or prescribe the culture in which they exist. In his buildings, this comes to a head in his choice of certain materials. These materials exist within the building solely for the sense that they are interesting and new. One such material used extensively is from a company called Panelite. What they manufacture is a plastic-based composite panel consisting of two outer layers sandwiching an inner layer of straws placed on end. This produces some very interesting effects with light as well as coming in a variety of colors (in the case of the student union, almost exclusively orange). Besides for being a wall material, it can also be used for things like counter-tops and furniture, allowing for a more cohesive presence throughout the building. This cohesiveness becomes important in an aesthetic sense, especially in a building that is as eclectic as the IIT Student Union.
Koolhaas dealt heavily with ideas of fashion in another project he was working on around the same time. He was commissioned by the retail giant Prada to design a number of stores for them throughout the world. Koolhaas in turn decided to use Prada to re-approach the idea of ‘shopping’ in its entirety. He was intrigued by the idea of how to design chain-stores for a company that prided itself on its uniqueness. His solution was an idea fully integrated with contemporary ideas about the information age. Rather than a traditional store, one in which a customer enters past lackadaisical staff and browses shelves of slightly modified products, Koolhaas envisioned a Prada store as being an entire experience integrating a number of different archetypes. Why, he thought, could a Prada not be a performance stage, a laboratory or showroom, a trading floor and library and streetscape all in one? This idea began to create a wealth of potential, where information and experience became essential to one another. While it is a wonderful and lofty ideal to create a shop that also functions as a theater, the ultimate reality is that this cannot run contrary to the goal of selling items, lest the shop fail. And so the performance became the products. The experience of buying became an experience of immersion in information and a more dramatic dialogue between customer and retailer. Koolhaas proposed a number of innovative uses of technology to get this information across. He envisioned a world in which every buyer had a personal shopping assistant who had access to the buyer’s information in a database of past purchases and interests. To assist this, Koolhaas proposed interactive holographs operable by both the retailer and customer in order to explore different ideas of fashion more quickly and easily. This was the way that Koolhaas saw the world developing in its relationship with information. People would be able to adapt to the multiple layers presented with them quickly, and that prediction has by and large come to pass. The proliferation of media devices has become so great that to see someone in a major American city without 24/7 access to the internet is an oddity. Information has become more than just a tool or a material such as in Koolhaas’ early Millennial projects, it has become an entire lifestyle.
More than just an idea governing programmatic and material selections in Koolhaas’ work, ideas of Manhattanism, Modernism, and Fashion collide together in things like OMA’s renderings and models. Contrary to what seems to be the growing style of the time, when it comes to renderings OMA tends to do much more rough renderings that seem more as a collage than a pure computer-generated representation. This is similar to practices from well before IIT’s student union that architects like Mies had used to great effect. The idea is that the rendering, rather than showing the pure rational of a building (which often can be seen much better in plan) would show the spirit of the space. An example of Mies’ collage is the one he did for the Concert Hall project showing space delineated by simple planes contained within an industrial, trussformed factory (see below). This can be compared to the adjacent OMA collage, showing the student union building in a very simple, planar manner and shifting emphasis to the fashion-magazine cutouts using the space created. This shows an emphasis on use (content and programming), with the building secondary (form, physical reality).
One can say that Remâ€™s approach to materials, in an overall view, is wholly about information. One might say instead that Remâ€™s most important is information itself. Beyond simple ideas of just representing and symbolizing, Rem Koolhaas seeks to integrate information so wholly into his buildings that it takes on form itself. In this way the materials he chooses to use serve only as stepping stones to be treated and turned into a desired sign. Glass, plastic, and steel are only tools to him for telling the story of the world in which he is working. This world is a summation of the ideas and technology that have led up to it. It is organic, like Manhattanism and ephemeral like the digital realm. It is rational and organized like Modernism. It is fashionable like Prada. It is symbolic, like the IIT Student Union building.
References: “Colours” – Rem Koolhaas, Norman Foster, Alessandro Mendini “Projects for Prada: Part 1” - Atrizio Bertelli, Jens Hommert, Michael Kubo and Miuccia Prada “Rem Koolhaas: Conversations With Students” – Rem Koolhaas and Sanford Kwinter “What is OMA: Considering Rem Koolhaas and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture” - Jean Attali, H.J.A. Hofland, Fredric Jameson and Fritz Neymeyer
Greg Grunloh – Architect at Holabird and Root and project architect for the M.T.C.C.
An examination of Rem Koolhaas through his projects for The Illinois Institute of Technology and three instances of Prada.